Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Smiles of a Sondheim Night

The subject of today's post is definitely on the trivial side of things, and I debated whether it merited a blog post. Then I remember that this sort of triviality is one of the things I care about the most, and the blog exists to document just this sort of thing. A blog devoted to the intersection of "music and the mind" should certainly have time for situations when the mind uncovers some unexpected musical connection. Quite the opposite of some scholar digging out connections from painstaking research, the magic is that I did not seek them. They found me using all those strange musical circuits our brains assemble to...well, to do whatever it is we're doing when we do music. This isn't just words about music - it's neuroscience!

First some quick background, because the swirling worlds and words of social media often play a big part in how these pathways take shape. On Friday, Facebook reminded me of a favorite memory from eight years ago. Here's what I wrote about my then teenage daughter:

[My daughter] just blew my mind. I'd (playfully, of course) told her if she sang "I'm so fancy" one more time, I wouldn't drop her off at home before I went to pick up her siblings. She defiantly starts in wordlessly intoning the first four notes and then, on the fly, switches to "For All the Saints" which, improbably, starts with the same four notes. I was in equal measures appalled and so proud. (Sol, mi re, do...)

If you don't know the past-its-prime Iggy Azalea song or the Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn tune, you may hear both in this little audio illustration I created:

With some help from a Facebook friend, I realized that this admittedly simple melodic formula - a descending 5-3-2-1 - has been used to begin many a famous melody. For example:

Although my friend pointed out the Tchaikovsky connection as one she noticed, it's worth noting that I only found the other tunes by searching on Themefinder.org. 

This in turn reminded me of Leonard Bernstein's wonderful "Infinite Variety of Music" lecture in which he explores melodies beginning with an ascending 5-1-2-3, which he refers to as the "How dry I am" motif.  I once posted my own annotated version of that lecture audio to YouTube. The "How dry I am" part begins around nine minutes in:

As Bernstein says, some of these melodies (whether his 5-1-2-3 family or my 5-3-2-1 family) sound remarkably different due to rhythmic/metric/harmonic factors. I've gone decades never noticing the connections between the 5-3-2-1 tunes in that first set I just posted. Thus, I still believe there's something special going on when someone like my daughter intuits such a link.

So it is that we come to my favorite recent connection, even though it is quite ephemeral and only deals with three little notes. Of course, with some effort, one could easily find a Bernsteinian infinite number of ways in which a three-note motif like this next one occurs in various contexts, but this thematic connection is a bit more magical because of the linked contexts.

For various reasons, I found myself watching and listening to a few different versions of Sondheim's A Little Night Music late last week. This led me to watch Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1955 Bergman film on which Sondheim's 1973 musical is based. The Bergman film is not a musical, though it has an attractive soundtrack by Erik Nordgren. But I'll admit I wasn't paying close attention to the score.

Lo and behold, at a particularly pivotal moment when the young Henrik storms out of a momentous dinner party, my ears were drawn to a little motif in the orchestra. I just made a mental note in the moment, but when I went back to check later, it confirmed what I'd heard. The first three notes of Sondheim's iconic "Night Waltz" theme are played quietly but emphatically at the end of a restless minor key phrase. In a minor key, the notes would be 3-2-1, though in Sondheim's major-key waltz melody, the scale degrees would be 5-#4-3.

Never mind the analysis, I think the connection can pretty easily be heard, and it's no big surprise that it found me because Sondheim uses that motive over and over. I'd surely heard it dozens of times in the days leading up to hearing Nordgren's otherwise quite different music. I'm not suggesting that Sondheim borrowed this idea from Nordgren, though it's not inconceivable that it had somehow stuck in his head. But I enjoyed thinking about this odd little portal from 1955 to 1973.

In this first video, you may see the short original scene. Just as Henrik turns to face the table (with back to us), Nordgren's orchestra plays the motif. We hear it even more intensely as Henrik runs out of the room, this time in a 3-2-1 version. (A flat 2 is a particularly intense way to approach the first scale degree.) 

In the following, I've tried to incorporate the Sondheim theme. Mostly I did this because I enjoy this sort of challenge (which involves adjusting keys, tempi, etc.) It doesn't fit perfectly into the original context because Sondheim's theme is too elegant and charming for this particular high-stakes moment, but I still enjoy the collage. Having written in my previous post about appreciating when directors aren't afraid of soundtrack silence, I'll admit I'm undercutting Bergman's original conception. In his film, the score fades to silence as Anne calls after Henrik and seems as if she might faint. The silence underscores the awkwardness for those left behind.

My new Sondheimed version seems a little out of place at first (though one could hear the waltz's gentility as underscoring Henrik's "forgive me"), but as Anne falters, the lilting waltz theme takes on a new meaning when her husband and maid come to her side. I think that part actually works, first to accompany her dizziness with the dizzying sweep of the waltz theme and then arriving at a climax as her husband and maid arrive to check on her. The theme then flutters away as she exits, leaving her husband to question many things.

I have often thought of such connections as portals - ways in which our own powers of perception can lead from thinking about one musical work to another. My favorites of the portals I've investigated in the past include:

  • oddly similar "held bassoon note" moments in two otherwise completely different works by Mendelssohn and Copland. 
  • the ways in which works by Beethoven and R. Strauss combine into Bernstein's "Somewhere."
    • (that portal from Beethoven to Strauss is effected by knowledge of Bernstein's tune!)
  • the seemingly endless connections between Mozart's three most famous violin concerti
I don't think I'll ever lose interest in this sort of thing, but I can't tell you when I'll post the next one because I won't be looking for it!


P.S. As you might imagine, I've watched that one-minute Bergman clip many times in the past few days. The intentional framing of the scene is pretty clear, first with the vivid table arrangement of all the guests seated opposite Madame Armfeldt and with how Henrik is framed facing the table (the priest-to be standing as if facing an altar), back to us - but it wasn't until after many viewings that I noticed Bergman flips the room perspective immediately after Henrik leaves. It's odd because it almost seems as if Anne is going the wrong way when she gets up to follow Henrik - he's just left the scene by running away from us, and now she runs towards us. I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting!

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